New Studies in Dogmatics: Sanctification

While one might limit an account of sanctification to the practical concerns of the everyday Christian life and still have much of value to ...

Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 302 pp.

In one of my favorite statements in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin makes the hamartiological observation that "each individual, by flattering himself, bears a kind of kingdom in his breast." He goes on to exhort his readers: "Unless you give up all thought of self and, so to speak, get out of yourself, you will accomplish nothing here."

How does Calvin proceed to work this idea out? He moves to a treatment of Christian love towards others, grounding the dignity of our neighbors not in our self-evaluation of their pleasantness or attractiveness, but in God's generosity towards them, creating them in his image and giving them personal gifts which we are obligated to recognize and respect. We should love our neighbors because God loves them and has sovereignly placed them in our lives. In other words, our thinking about our neighbors really begins in who God is and what he has done, and not in our personal context or concerns.

While one might limit an account of sanctification to the practical concerns of the everyday Christian life and still have much of value to say, there is tremendous benefit to presenting sanctification in an ordered way that begins with God and his acts, and works from there to the reality of sanctification in the lives of creatures. Such an ordering compels us to "get out of ourselves," so to speak, undermining a myopic and shallow view of the Christian life. Theology itself is a spiritual discipline, concerned primarily with contemplating, praising, and coming to know the God who sanctifies. Though we might find it counter-intuitive in our busy culture, one of the most practical ways in which we can work out our sanctification is to meditate upon the self-revelation of the Most Holy God.

Michael Allen has provided us an account of sanctification with this kind of robust theological depth. "We begin with the doctrine of the triune God and his own holiness," writes Allen. "Subsequently, we consider the shape of the gospel economy wherein that holiness is communicated to creatures in creation and, then, in Christ's fulfillment of the covenant on the far side of the fall and its many consequences."

Allen reminds us that this sort of systematic approach is crucial in our current context, despite the temptation to move quickly past this work to what we might deem more pressing concerns:
The cultural moment (as least of the post-Christian modern West) calls for deeper attention to systematic theology precisely for missiological reasons, however much presumptions may tend to identify the systematic task as impractical or esoteric. In a context with much remaining capital in terms of Christian imagination regarding questions, terms, and categories, one might proceed with less overt attention to synthetic connections. In Babylon, however, we dare not presume that the basic lineaments of the gospel have taken root without constantly tracing our way back to the principles of the faith.
Some will rightly see here in Allen's approach the influence of John Webster's theological methodology. Webster always emphasized that theology ought to truly be theological, truly concerned first and foremost with God and his works. "All creaturely acts are to be understood by first considering the divine works which cause creatures to live and move," writes Webster. "The theology of the Christian life is an extension and application of the doctrine of the triune God."

Calvin, Owen, and Aquinas also feature heavily in the book, among a few other thinkers. Most importantly, however, Allen's work is carefully attentive to Scripture, pausing frequently to present exegesis of key texts on the topic of sanctification.

I was particularly intrigued by Allen's compelling and nuanced treatment of grace in the book. Calvin's concept of the duplex gratia gives structure to much of the text's central material. This is book-ended by a thoughtful defense of the notion that "grace perfects nature," relying heavily on the work of Herman Bavinck. As part of his biblical defense of this idea, Allen draws upon the oft-overlooked transfiguration of Christ, which, coupled with the crucifixion, displays the dual effect of grace: redemption from sin and the perfection of our humanity. The transfiguration displays the fact that the glorious perfection to which sanctification orders us is "genuinely humane and creaturely." Allen safeguards this notion from various Roman Catholic errors on the one hand, and certain Reformed over-corrections on the other.

The concept of habitual grace is provided a similar retrieval and defense. "In bygone days, the notion that sanctifying grace works by infusing habits in the Christian has been a means in the Thomistic and Reformed traditions for speaking to the deeper or more elongated effects of grace beyond its impelling specific actions." Allen draws upon New Testament imagery which presents sanctification in terms of organic growth to defend a Reformed, covenantal construal of habitual grace.

Many other arguments in the book could be mentioned and discussed, but I will conclude by reporting that Allen is (rightly, I think) critical of the language of "irresistible grace" (though not of the substance and meaning of the classic Calvinist doctrine). Such language is at best "meaningless" given the character of grace, and at worst reduces our consideration of grace to creaturely concerns. In other words, it is language that fails to help us to get out of ourselves in our understanding of grace.
Grace is effective, to be sure, and does not return void. But to speak of its irresistibility is to think it alongside and amongst other creaturely causes, and that is necessarily to think too little of it. . . . We do well to speak of the surety and efficacy of regenerative and salvific grace, but to avoid the misleading language of irresistible grace. Ironically enough, we do so because the very register of affirmation there - resistible or irrestisble - reduces God's action (grace) to the sphere of the creaturely.
The book is full of such helpful correctives to our theological approach to the doctrine of sanctification. As a work of well-ordered dogmatic thinking, it stands as one of the best publications of 2017.

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Come back next Tuesday for my review of the new Davenant Guide on Natural Law!

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